Published on Wisden India on November 21, 2013
As I stood on my porch on the morning of 16, November, nothing seemed right with the world. The entire milieu was off kilter. The skies were a swathe of startling blue and the sun shone brightly. It was ridiculously warm. Chilly November in these parts is usually the time to look back fondly on the smells and vibrant colors of the season just passed and forcibly banish thoughts of the looming cold months. But the grass on lawns that should have long retreated into hibernation was lush green and still growing. And I spotted a neighbor mowing his lawn across the street! The sound of its motor on a mid-November morning should have added a stark discordant aural note to the surreal state I was already in.
Yet, all I heard was silence. I stood gazing at that pantomime act moving back and forth across the lawn in deafening silence. My head heavy, hearing insulated by the fur balls stuffed between ears. The sleep deprived grogginess I couldn’t shake off. It had been 3 AM when I had finally extinguished the lights and lay in bed staring at the dark ceiling. The mind running a loop of the scene in my basement just hours before. The quiet. The utter stillness. This film had only one frame in it. And though I was awake now, that very frame kept flickering in my eyes.
Of the quivering lips. The moist and teary eyes.
Oh, I had seen tears before. Even years ago. But tears of a different sort, bursting out in anger and frustration. A hint of even resignation. “Ponting….no Ponting…no…no”; gritted teeth expelling the words soaked in desperation. Yet another Ricky Ponting century and yet another anguished howl of protest. For there had been a brewing conviction that it didn’t bode well. Punter’s tally of Test centuries appeared on an arc that would pass him on the statistical highway. Putting aside the enormous admiration he had for the great Australian, he had plotted and stuck pins into the voodoo doll in a Baggy Green he carried around in his head. Cursing him to fail. Yes, tears. Tears that I had looked upon on in bemusement.
And wonder. For it was an utter mystery to me how it had come to this.
Two decades. Twenty out of these momentous twenty four years had I lived out in Toronto. Always watching from afar. A distant observer, peering intently at scenes unfolding in familiar corners of the globe. Transfixed by the wondrous artistry of the elfin figure with the unruly mop of hair. His organized excellence and decorous violence. Almost all of it had flickered and glimmered across at me on television screens. In all seasons and at all times of the day. Mainly nights. My move to Toronto had coincided with steadily increasing cricket coverage, first in sporadic splutters and starts on pay-per-view television to culminate in blanket coverage on three channels. A trans-national pipeline supplying him straight into my living room in this frontier outpost of cricket.
In the beginning, I agonized about the distance between the unreal universe he inhabited and my living room. For even I, in the cricketing boonies of Canada, could not escape the delirium of his masses. It was omnipresent white noise and I longed to be in the thick of the bedlam. And it was intoxicating: Sharjah, 1998, I had come undone. Unhinged in ecstatic agony – all alone on my couch in the wee hours past midnight. Or viciously painful on occasions: sitting in a catatonic state – alone again – after India had collapsed after his epic century in Chennai against Pakistan in 1999. Screaming at walls in frustration, echoes bouncing back at no one but me. Late night phone calls to friends or family after any of them was like rolling down the windows and letting the roar into my living room.
Yes, I used to agonize over my seclusion.
I cannot pinpoint when I began to retreat slowly. When I began to withdraw consciously from the utter madness surrounding his every twitch and move. The volume knob jammed at eleven permanently. Visits to India, during even seminal series like the 2001 epic against Australia had been disorienting. For I was not accustomed to the relentless cacophony surrounding him outside the stadium. After the two innings to die for in Mumbai: he seemed everywhere, even on the weather channel. At dinner tables, in restaurants, shopping malls, and taxi cabs; hyperventilating voices extolling his divinity. Then, a failure with the bat in Kolkata: “Naalaayak nan maga” (Utterly incompetent son of a…), an auto-rickshaw driver had snarled at me on the evening of his dismissal in Kolkata, startling me with his vehemence and subsequent odious comparison with Dravid. I had flown back after the second Test, back to my familiar couch to watch his superb ton against Warne, McGrath and Gillespie in Chennai.
I had become too used to watching him in solitude. Or inured, for I had no choice. But I was relishing it now.
“Put it in a bottle and take it with you” said David Hookes on air after yet another straight drive to die for in Mumbai in 2001. And I took his advice to heart. And started bottling my emotions and opinions about him. In the interests of my sanity. Oh, I raided the wine cellar regularly in selective company, whether to wallow in his brilliance or to criticize and analyze his batting. Cape Town. Headingly. Centurion. His vow of celibacy outside off stump in Sydney, 2004. The excruciating crawl towards his hundredth century. The last two dragged out years of tepid starts that never failed to fizzle out. But I began to count to ten before venturing into any discussion about him.
I had become wary. Wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get slathered with saccharine gushes on ordinary days or irrational thrashings at failures. Or the equally ludicrous search for or proof of human perfection in him. Even in remote Toronto, one could get blindsided. Find oneself in the thick of a convoluted statistics flinging match about him and Dravid. Or Lara. Or a party conversation after his wonderful knock at Melbourne in 1999 – an inexplicable tirade of “He’s always been such a selfish bugger. Has never donated any money to charity” offered as a riposte to my enthusiastic blabbering about the knock that day, forcing me to retreat to a corner pretending to search for gulab jamuns. As he went about wearing his brilliance and legend on the field so lightly, with such grace and dignity, everything around him appeared to churn violently in all directions.
It was a search for equanimity and calmness in the middle of the ever present storm. For he was always the eye of it. And these were the days before his detractors and devotees ambushed and ground the internet to a halt. So I elected to lose myself in my solitude. In the breathtaking backfoot cover drives. In his flash-of-an eye swivel depositing a spitting Warne leg-break into the throngs at mid-wicket. The gorgeous flick to square leg, an exercise in poetic minimalism. And in the shot he alone was conceived for, the aesthetic perfection of his drive down the ground. And stopped fighting my demons about my seclusion. Put it in a bottle and kept it close. At peace with myself.
For years I had grinned at the bemused voice flung back over the shoulder as the little feet pattered on by: “Oh, daddy. Cricket again?” as I sat watching yet another telecast beamed into my basement from some sunny cricket ground across the globe. He was usually amused, mostly annoyed by the usurping of TV time from his grasp. But he bore it with admonishing shakes of the head and went about his way. It must have been such a mysterious ritual to him.
He had been born in Toronto. And our home in the core of the city had meant distance from the cricket laden suburbs. Suburbs I had inhabited on weekends playing league cricket for years. Ceasing only when he started playing sports himself. It had seemed awfully unfair to vanish for a whole day each weekend. But I had been reticent to force feed him cricket or insist that he play it. Believing that just playing was not an end to itself and that the social aspect of immersion in the sport was even more valuable, I had encouraged him to partake in the soccer and baseball leagues all his friends were a part of too. And he had, enthusiastically. Cricket had always been designated as that exotic obsession of his dad.
It was around the 2007 World Cup that the worm suddenly turned. Perhaps it was seeing me bounce around at home about the upcoming event that made him even take notice. This was the first time I saw him sit him down beside me to watch. Sure, he had been rocked to sleep to the soothing sounds of Lawry, Benaud, Bhogle and Cozier before, but he had his eyes open now. That disastrous World Cup was the sort to turn anyone off any sport for life, but it did set in motion a startling sequence of events that boggles my mind to this day.
Four years after that World Cup, we were sat in the Radcliffe Stand at Trent Bridge in blazing sunshine watching the second Test between India and England. Sitting beside him was an octogenarian member of Nottingham cricket. And I watched them conversing all day. Back and forth they went, the gentleman completely taken in by the animated figure next to him. I heard fragments of their conversation now and then – Hammond, Miller, Benaud, Gavaskar, Larwood…
It was India’s second innings and at the fall of the second wicket, they had abruptly dispensed with chatter and trained their eyes on the middle. Concentrating. What unfolded was as pure as any sample of the beauty of the man’s craft. He scored 56 in India’s crumbling effort, but you would be hard-pressed to think of what else you could have wanted from that knock. As the bundle of rapture next to me attested to. It was distilled perfection – while it lasted. When he fell to Anderson, it took a half hour for the glum look to dissipate from the face – and then they were back, talking. About what they had just witnessed and moving on to other topics. Now Jim Laker.
It came full circle that afternoon in Nottingham. As I watched him leap to his feet repeatedly, hands clasped over his head, face beaming. Turning to the gentleman, saying “Beautiful. Just beautiful” and sitting down to hug me. I was really overcome. I had never asked for more from a knock ever in the past. And that paltry 56 was a nugget that would now be cherished. “How was it to see him in the flesh for the first time during the Sahara Cup?” he had asked. The trip to England to watch the Lord’s and Trent Bridge Tests had been fuelled by a burning desire to give him a chance to witness just this. Just days earlier, we had entered Lord’s in awe together. As the Indian team walked out onto the field, he had stood on tiptoe, craning his neck over and around the folks in front of us. Trying to spot him. And grabbed my arm, pointing at the diminutive figure walking up to his position at mid-off: “Tendu, daddy. Look, Tendu!” he had said, face glowing with joy. Now his Tendu had come to life gloriously in front of him.
His Tendu. There was no other way for me to think about it anymore. It had taken just four years, a blink of an eye, for him to bottle him up for himself. And it had happened instantly. India’s tour of England in 2007 that followed the World cup was not just his introduction to Test cricket. It was also the first time he really set eyes on him proper. And the moth found its flame. New to the sport and needing something, someone, to anchor his attention, the fact that he picked him (and soon after, his captain at the time) was no surprise whatsoever. But it was where his Tendu led him and how that intrigued.
“His socks are red, daddy” he had said, watching a DVD of the Centurion knock – one he wore out with incessant viewings. And the Mumbai and Chennai knocks of 2001. Soon, I’d find him, peering at the computer screen intently –“What are you watching?” “Perth, 1992 daddy” or “Chennai, 1998”. That was how it began. Armed with yet another of the mediocre biographies of the man, he dealt with the backlog like it was an archeological dig. Peeling away layer after layer carefully. Discovering more mysteries that led him on more quests. This was like watching a spider web take shape in front of me. For I would soon find him deep into side-branches: Cape Town, 1997 – Alan Donald – World Cup semi-final, 1999 – Steve Waugh – Mark Taylor – Shane Warne – back to Chennai, 1998. Or Centurion, 2003 – Wasim Akram – England 1992 – reverse swing – Ian Botham – Ashes – Headingly 1981 – Dennis Lillee – Viv Richards – Brian Lara. Then came Haigh, Frith, Brijnath, Patherya, Bhattacharya. He was tracing back his Tendu’s footsteps, but he was following every lead. Taking every turn.
He discovered cricket in the process.
It was truly fascinating to watch. I had an entire lifetime invested in the sport. And a lifetime’s worth of memories of matches watched at stadiums, on television and on the radio; discussions and arguments about cricket with friends, family and strangers all through. He had none of that – just me. His was a discovery of a very personal nature, at his own pace, with an organic method he developed as he went. Untouched by any bedlam or cacophony, any extraneous factors whatsoever, his was an enjoyment that I envied. Yet, in the span of four years, I saw him go further and deeper into cricket than I could have imagined. He had chosen well.
I would never be alone anymore.
The rest of that Saturday was spent in a daze. I drove around running errands, shopping for groceries in a perpetual fog. Everywhere I went, I felt distant. Felt like everyone around me was moving in slow motion like in some noirish advertisement reel. And it was deathly quiet in my head, like I was deep underwater. Rolling my shopping cart down the aisles, I just couldn’t shake off the unsettling feeling from the events of the previous night from my mind. The short run back to the middle…his twenty two yards…the private moment of gratitude…that walk back. The tears.
I just wanted to get back home. Leaving the bags of groceries in the kitchen, I had gone down into the basement. The television was on. It was a replay of the previous night’s play. The West Indies were eight wickets down. The white noise from the crowd was coming in waves. I sat down on the couch quietly next to him.